Falcons will try to climb over .500 for first time in more than 1,700 days

FLOWERY BRANCH -- It’s been more than 1,700 days since the Falcons were over .500 as a football team.

The Falcons (2-2) will have a shot to end this dubious period in franchise history when they face the Bucs (2-2) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. The winner will garner first place in the NFC South.

The Falcons haven’t seen the other side of .500 since the end of the 2017 season or 1,730 days as of Sunday.

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The Falcons did climb to 4-4 last season after eight games, but then promptly were blown out by Dallas and New England and never returned to .500 as they finished 7-10 in Arthur Smith’s first season.

The Falcons finished the 2017 season 10-6 and went 1-1 in the playoffs in January. The Falcons opened the 2018 season 1-4, got back to 4-4 and then lost five consecutive. They finished 7-9.

In 2019, they started 1-7 and finished 7-9. In 2020, they started 0-5, and coach Dan Quinn was fired. Raheem Morris guided the broken ship to an overall 4-12 mark.

If the Falcons climb over .500, they’ll have to do it against their longtime nemesis Tom Brady, who is 10-0 against the Falcons, including that crushing loss in Super Bowl 51.

Smith, who has the Falcons at the cusp of a breakthrough in his second season, credited the team’s development to some basic concepts.

“It’s the consistency, the work habits and getting better at it day to day,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of the mundane.”

The Falcons, after implementing new schemes last season, elected to move on from quarterback Matt Ryan after losing the Deshaun Watson derby. The Falcons signed Marcus Mariota and drafted Desmond Ridder after trading Ryan to the Colts.

“There’s no special pill, no certain exercise, it’s just creating those habits, working, understanding and guys getting better day after day,” Smith said. “That’s really what it’s been.”

Handling the boring things is part of the evaluation for the new regime.

“Probably the hardest thing to predict is you’re relying on what you consider – like I said, guys come from a lot of different programs,” Smith said. “It’s not going to be perfect, but you base a lot of it on their history and then what you don’t know until you get somebody into the building is how they change, how they adapt, how they handle success and how they handle failure.”

Smith is big on seeing how players handle failure.

“Does the long grind of the season wear them down?” Smith said. “I think after you’re with someone for a long time, you get a pretty good feel. Those are the guys you want to reward.”

Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, left tackle Jake Matthews and kicker Younghoe Koo impressed the new regime with their application to the philosophy that the mundane matters and were rewarded with contract extensions.

“So, it will continue to evolve,” Smith said. “I’ve been around some guys that have started out really well, and then maybe something changed. It’s the hardest thing to evaluate and be objective about.”

Pulling out a win over Brady and the ticked-off Bucs may be a tall order for the Falcons with their newfound rushing attack and opportunistic defense. Brady has not lost three games in a row since he lost four in a row in weeks 4, 5, 6, and 8 in 2002.

Even if the Falcons manage to slow Brady, they must contend with the Bucs’ normally stout defensive front.

“They’re strong in the middle,” Smith said. “Vita Vea, as good as any interior defensive lineman in the league, hard to move, explosive, powerful. They’ve got two really good inside linebackers in (Devin) White and (Lavonte) David, ton of respect.”

Smith, the Falcons’ play-caller on offense, has matched wits with Tampa Bay coach Todd Bowles, their signal-caller on defense.

“They give you a lot of multiple looks, as they always have with Todd Bowles,” Smith said. “Strong defense, a different challenge week-to-week, certainly, different pressure-looks that they bring from week-to-week. So, it’s a challenge, a really good veteran team.”

The Falcons are anticipating that the Bucs will make adjustments from the Chiefs’ game. They lost 41-31, and Chiefs ran the ball for 189 yards on 37 carries.

“You do look at it, but understand that they are going to do something different to get it fixed,” Smith said. “If there’s something that hurts you, usually people try it in different ways, whether it’s a certain scheme that somebody had some success with, they may put their own flavor on it, but in my experience, you’re going to see it, whether it’s this week or the next.

“That’s kind of the way that you are looking at it, knowing that because Kansas City did something, they had a completely different plan for Kansas City. (The Chiefs) got off to a hot start.”

Even at age 45, Brady makes the Bucs a contender.

“Well, I don’t think Brady gets enough credit, to sustain that level of success year after year, he’s going to make the right play,” Smith said. “If you make a mistake or leave somebody uncovered, usually he finds them. Something as simple as a flat route, you bust a coverage or don’t cover it, he kind of goes where you’re not.”

Brady has won despite his supporting cast changing.

“He’s had a million different teammates and been successful, they’ve got a good team, they got good veteran players,” Smith said. “Clearly, he’s got a lot of trust in (wide receiver) Mike Evans, I would, too, if I were a quarterback, and they’ve got other veterans in there, and they’ve mixed and matched. (Chris) Godwin seems to be getting back, you can tell he’s had a lot of trust in Godwin.”

There was some question whether the Tampa Bay line would hold up after center Ryan Jensen was lost for the season to injury.

“Good line, they protect well, really good tackles, (Tristan) Wirfs and Donovan Smith,” Smith said. “Wirfs is a really good player, and they’ve got a lot of good players.”

Now, if the Falcons get over .500, a dark period will be over.

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Atlanta Falcons 2022 NFL schedule

Sept. 11: Saints 27, Falcons 26

Sept. 18: Rams 31, Falcons 27

Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23

Oct. 2 Falcons 23, Browns 20

Oct. 9 at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

Oct. 16 vs. San Francisco, 1 p.m.

Oct. 23 at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

Oct. 30 vs. Carolina, 1 p.m.

Nov. 6 vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 1 p.m.

Nov. 10 at Carolina, 8:15 p.m.

Nov. 20 vs. Chicago, 1 p.m.

Nov. 27 at Washington, 1 p.m.

Dec. 4 vs. Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

BYE WEEK

Dec. 18 at New Orleans, TBD

Dec. 24 at Baltimore, 1 p.m.

Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.

Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD